Seeing is Believing!

Quick readers will have noticed that I’ve edited my previous log. It had been very lengthy in draft form so I had purged much of the material to make it short enough in order that people might actually read it. Unfortunately this had the effect of making it not entirely clear, so I have split it into two (the previous post and this one) and added back some of my deleted thoughts.

The previous log entry is now principally concerned with issues of artistic style, while this one deals with issues specific to designing a single background scene. When designing an interactive in-game scene there is much to be considered. Firstly, where will the main character have to move? What is the location and movement possibilities of secondary characters? These “walkable areas” need to be well flagged so that the player knows where is “in bounds” and where things might be inaccessible. Secondly, it is very important to consider elements of a scene that might change, such as a mirror that can be picked up or a switch that can be flipped. These elements must be drawn separately and placed seamlessly over the static background as objects that can be changed dynamically. Thirdly, are there any special animations to be shown? Not only must the designer consider the room necessary if, say, a monster were to throw a fit, but also the efficient uses of humdrum animations such as the main character climbing. It takes twice as much time to draw a character climbing from two different angles: if scenes can be designed so that she always climbs in profile or always with her back to the player then your animation workload can be halved. Finally, the composition of a scene should give clues as to what the focal point of the scene is: what’s important, and what’s just background.

The following in-game example will demonstrate these design principles in action. The scene is the kitchens in the bowels of the princess’s castle, now the lair of the fiercesome dragon that guards the castle ruins. Originally I saw this background as a means of demonstrating the dragon’s destructive capacities, perhaps by drawing him in a nest made of shattered furnishings and the bones of his victims. But there were scaling problems: with a relatively large princess sprite on screen, the dragon would either have to be unimpressively small or only partially visible. Removing the princess, thereby making the scene viewable but not walkable, would take away from the antagonism between the two characters and fail to give the impression of the looming presence one would expect of a powerful dragon. I drew this scene from several angles before finally alighting on a solution (obviously some of the abandoned work is incomplete):

The princess meeting the dragon was supposed to be a powerful scene, evoking in the player a sense of awe and foreboding. Cramming in the dragon was a challenge, however.  Should he be coiled up (so that the player could see more of him), or only partially visible?  What angle would best reveal his size and power? I ended up going with one of the preceding experiments: see if you can guess which one.

All of the above have their advantages. The first would show the dragon looming over the princess below, although unfortunately only showing him from behind. The second would accentuate the dragon but reduce walking space and movement cues (where are the exits?).  The third would show what a violent creature the dragon can be with a very detailed nest of shattered furnishings, weapons and bones, but the level of detail required an awful lot of time to implement and it would shrink the size of the dragon.  The final one attempted to ameliorate some of the issues with the second one.

Having found myself wasting time doing drawing after drawing, I decided to refocus on fundamentals.  What was really necessary to make this scene work?  In a moment of clarity I finally realized that the fact that this scene took place in the castle kitchens was really irrelevant to the story. The effect of the dragon’s nest, although revealing, could be shifted elsewhere: shattered furnishings and bones could litter the rest of the castle. What was really important was the dragon, and since he was so immense and powerful he would dominate the scene, leaving little room for anything else. Once I had conceptualized this the background problem resolved itself: as long as I could fit a dragon character on the screen, the background would simply be whatever space was leftover. Finally, while I was testing the scene I stumbled on the idea of blacking the princess out in order to accentuate the radiant force that was the dragon. This is the result:

The final version (so far!).  The dragon dominates the scene, leaving little of the background visible.  The background is actually identical to the second one shown above: note how the focal point of the dragon’s character overwhelms any thought of the background being just a ten minute incomplete mash (which it is).  Too bad I hadn’t thought of that right off the bat!

Again, paying closer attention to what is really important in a scene would have saved me some work, but it is not always obvious beforehand how to actualize it quickly and elegantly.  Experimenting with various options has the benefit of focusing me on what is really important, which usually results in a much improved end-product.  As my work has progressed I’ve become a little better at anticipating design dead-ends, but I still rely heavily on visual experimentation to solve my problems -for me, seeing is believing!

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